My husband thought I was crazy. Nearly nine years ago we'd just moved into a new house with our two active, outdoorsy, art-and-crafts-loving daughters (ages 6 and 4), we had a baby on the way; and I had my sights on replacing our 25-yr old hand-me-down sofas with two lovely, white slipcovered sofas.
I've always loved the clean look and neutral canvas of white sofas, and I had visions of designing our new living room around simple lines in that relaxed cottage style. But hubs, ever the practical one, foresaw all the potential pitfalls--baby spit-up, coffee spills, marker stains, chocolate smears--all inevitable in an active household, with or without white upholstery.
And yet these from Ikea had caught my eye. Well, truth be told, it was the Pottery Barn version that caught my eye, but our budget sent me to these lookalikes at Ikea. ;-)
I couldn't let go of this notion: could I somehow reconcile the form I loved with the function we required? Could these withstand the demands and activities of our homeschooling lifestyle and remain both functional and beautiful??
Clearly, as you can see from the pictures, we landed on yes. In the end I won hubs over to the idea with the reasoning that because they're slipcovered, we could remove the covers regularly and wash them as needed; and that if worse came to worst in terms of spills and stains, I could always bleach them. Right? :-D
(Side note for those of you who may still be scratching your head over this one---the other failsafe in the equation was that we purchased a second set of slipcovers fairly inexpensively--a back-up in the event that something drastic and unforeseen happened or in case the wear and tear on the sofas turned out to be more than anticipated.)
As it turned out, there was a proverbial fly in the ointment---even just using chlorine bleach sparingly to restore whiteness and brightness to my white slipcovers, I found its smell didn't play nice with my lungs. When I used it to spot-treat the occasional stain or when I added it to the washing machine, the smell lingered, filled up our upstairs laundry room and spilled over to the other rooms that level, and wafted into the lower level of the house. Much as I diffused the good stuff and threw open windows to air things out, I still felt constricted in my airways until the smell was completely gone.
Cause for concern. And the more I noticed its effect on me the more I began doing my best to avoid it as much as possible.
Turns out it's not just me; studies and research on the health impacts of bleach have indicated that bleach itself is more likely to cause respiratory issues than other cleaners. It can be especially troublesome for those who already have asthma or other chronic lung issues.
Are you in this camp too? This led me to identifying and using natural alternatives both for preserving and brightening my white fabrics, as well as for effectively treating stains in general.
Here are some of my favorite bleach alternatives.
Distilled Vinegar - Great option for cleaning and freshening fabrics. If you're not a fan of the smell, add Lemon, Lime, or Wild Orange essential oil, both to create a softer, more pleasant aroma and to boost the cleaning power.
This spray bottle of vinegar, water, and Lime essential oil does double duty for cleaning glass and mirrors, as well as for treating occasional spots before washing.
Hydrogen Peroxide - This one is actually very similar to bleach in terms of its chemical makeup, but without the chlorine component that can be so detrimental to our skin and lungs. It both disinfects and brightens whites.
It's my primary go-to when there's a spill or stain involving blood. (If you've ever had to clean up after a nose bleed, you'll appreciate this one!) When you're dealing with a blood stain issue, it works best to treat the fabric right away--pour about a capful right onto the stain and it begins to bubble, literally eating away the redness. Soak in cold water, then rinse and launder as usual.
Lemon Juice - The citric acid in lemon juice works similarly to vinegar in terms of getting rid of stains, and can be used either on its own or mixed into a vinegar solution to brighten/whiten fabrics.
Lemon essential oil - This oil is a workhorse in my house! It's handy in the laundry room for both its antibacterial properties and whitening powers. It works really well on its own or combined with any of the above options.
Karen Siegel-Maier's DIY Bleach Alternative Formula* - This is a concoction I love from Siegel-Maier's book Naturally Clean Home, and what I've been using for restoring the whiteness and brightness to my slipcovers without bleach. It's a helpful blend of a few of the above ingredients, plus a basic, homemade liquid laundry formula. She shares a similar recipe on her website here.
Borax - I keep this powder on hand for other tough jobs. It can be added to the washing machine with your regular cycle, or mixed into a paste with water and applied to fabric for pre-treating stains.
Other Natural Solutions for Treating Stains
My general go-to for spot-treating stains right away is a blend of white distilled vinegar, water, and Lemon (or Lime) essential oil. (The Purify blend is also a good one for this.)
When my kids come in with grass stains or there's a coffee spill, I immediately dab (or rinse) it in cold water and douse it with my vinegar-essential oil spray. Sometimes I'll also add a drop of Lemon oil right onto the spot.
While this does the trick for most occasions, it's important to understand that not all stains are created equal and I've found that with certain kinds of stains, my vinegar solution just doesn't cut it. When you think about it, this makes sense---a grease stain has a different chemical structure than, say, a chocolate stain, so naturally it might take a different agent to remove it.
In my early days of doing laundry, I didn't understand this, and it's a big reason why I once overused bleach and other conventional stain removers. Now that I know this I'm wary of products that claim to treat/remove all manner of stains in one easy-fix. What I've found is that this usually means that product is loaded with a hefty mix of yucky stuff that's not good for you (and in the long run probably isn't great for your fabrics either).
One of the most helpful, go-to references I've found for figuring out how to deal with specific laundry stains is Karyn Siegel-Maier's book Naturally Clean Home (referenced above). It has a handy list of specific stains by type (coffee, juice, grease, etc.) and the respective stain-treatment solutions. (Btw, if you're wanting to makeover your housekeeping solutions in general, I highly recommend getting your own copy of this book! It's loaded with all manner of ideas for easy, DIY, natural cleaners.)
If you're not one for DIY-ing your own laundry solutions, I encourage you to do a little sleuthing on the products you're considering by looking them up on the Environmental Working Group's database. The EWG's "guide to healthy cleaners" works similarly to the EWG Skindeep database, in that they've pulled together the data and research on commonly used ingredients and a wide range of household cleaning products, and scored them based on their toxicity levels. You can search by brand name to see a specific product's overall toxicity score, or search for specific ingredients/substances to see toxicity ratings by individual ingredient.
Was this helpful to you? Have you tried one of these alternatives before? Share your feedback or review below. Here's to keeping things bright and clean without toxins!